St Jude’s Playwright

Michael Church

  • The Kindness of Strangers: The Life of Tennessee Williams by Donald Spoto
    Bodley Head, 409 pp, £12.95, May 1985, ISBN 0 370 30847 6
  • Tennessee Williams on File by Catherine Arnott
    Methuen, 80 pp, £7.95, May 1985, ISBN 0 413 58550 6

‘The bird that I hope to catch in the net of this play is … the true quality of experience in a group of people, that cloudy, flickering, evanescent – fiercely charged! – interplay of live human beings in the thundercloud of a common crisis.’ Who among our contemporary playwrights would dare pen anything so shamelessly romantic? Who would even want to? Certainly not our Brenton-and-Hare political puritans, nor yet our Ayckbourn-and-Frayn tragicomedians. Poverty, disease and disability we encounter in abundance, but as the occasion for either morbidity or schmaltz. The slow but sure revival of interest in Tennessee Williams – this summer Harold Pinter directing Sweet Bird of Youth, and brilliantly – suggests a general awareness that there may currently be a hole where our theatre’s heart should be.

That declaration of intent comes, not in one of Williams’s purple prefaces, but as a stage direction in the middle of a speech from Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, as the passively desperate Brick absorbs a hammer-blow from his father prior to delivering an even more pulverising one in return. More than any other dramatist in recent times, Williams writes as though he were both designing the set and directing the minutest ebbs and flows in the action. And he directs like a musician: the violently variegated moods of A Streetcar Named Desire are underscored by the recurring sound of trumpets, piano blues, faint polka music, and the chilling cry of the lady selling flowers for the dead. He likened his symbolist fantasy Camino Real to ‘riding out’ on a tenor sax in a bop session.

Williams’s literary heroes were Rilke, D.H. Lawrence, and Hart Crane, and his theatrical heroes were Ibsen, Strindberg and Chekhov – a photo of the last accompanied him wherever he went. Mix together all these colours on a New Orleans palette, add the playwright’s wonderful sense of the poetry of vernacular speech, and you have the beginning – but only the beginning – of some indication as to the art he deployed in at least twelve plays with such magnificent success. The arch-rationalist Mark Twain held Sir Walter Scott to blame for the disabling romanticism of the American South: Tennessee Williams, brought up on the Waverley novels, was a joyful victim of the disease. ‘I write out of love for the South … I think the war between romanticism and the hostility to it is very sharp there.’ This conflict’s purest embodiment is to be found in Streetcar, where Blanche opposes the cheerfully rutting sexuality of Stanley Kowalski with the desperation of one who knows her life depends on at least the pretended acceptance, by those around her, of her very different values. ‘The charm of the defeated’ is a phrase that recurs in both plays and stories: the battle will always be lost, but it will always yield beauty.

With so intensely autobiographical an artist there is inevitably a danger that the work will be seen as merely symptomatic of the life. Indeed, at the height of his personal notoriety in the Sixties and early Seventies, he seemed to encourage this view. ‘I am going to be reviewed more than the play,’ he wrote anxiously – and accurately – to his agent, on the opening of Small Craft Warnings in 1971. Donald Spoto believes the story he has pieced together reveals his subject ‘as a man more disturbing, more dramatic, richer and more wonderful than any character he ever created’. This orotund declaration is simply irrelevant, and it does less than justice to the richly detailed study he has produced. If The Kindness of Strangers is reducible to a single message, it is that he lived first and last for his art, and that the alcohol, the uppers and downers, the daily swims, the daily copulations, the compulsive partyings in the fairest places of Europe and America, were in a mysterious way all facets of that fundamental drive. Since his fictional strangers brought comfort for factual infant griefs, the story of his life is inescapably important.

The explicit attempts at autobiography were notoriously unreliable: as is well known, the real autobiography lies in the plays and stories. Tom was the name he was given, and Tom the narrator in The Glass Menagerie tells a tale which Spoto authenticates down to many of the smallest details. The roistering father Cornelius, who once got an ear bitten off in a brawl, was after the first few years seldom present, but, dragging his unhappy brood from place to place, he left deep scars on them all. To sense the damage he did to his wife Edwina one has merely to read the part of Amanda Wingfield in that first great play: self-deludingly optimistic, desperately domineering, a faded Southern belle marooned in a noisy, dirty city which no longer recognised her kind. Sickly, solitary Tom was contemptuously dismissed as ‘Miss Nancy’, but it was the fate of his sister Rose which was to haunt him wherever he went, and in almost everything he wrote.

‘We were so close to each other, we had no need of others,’ he said many years later. When Rose was ill, he would be convinced that he, too, was ill. He loved her charm and her imagination, and watched her phobic retreat from life as though a part of himself was dying. By a terrible irony it was a chance remark of his which triggered the final phase of her withdrawal; the fact that her lobotomy was sanctioned by Edwina while he was away at university only intensified his furious conviction that this obscenity could have been avoided. Two years before he died he told an interviewer that it had been ‘a great act of Providence that I was able to turn my borderline psychosis into creativity – my sister Rose did not manage this.’ Spoto leaves open the question of whether there was any truth in Rose’s allegation that her father had sexually molested her, while Williams later dismissed this and other outbursts as mere fantasies, blaming his mother’s prudishness for her panicky response (‘Do anything! Don’t let her talk like that!’). But perhaps even he was not so sure. In Suddenly Last Summer, a play in which the autobiographical elements are juggled into a different form, the imperious mother of the dead poet has one consuming desire – to prevent a deranged Rose-figure from telling the truth about her son’s grisly murder by the children he had sexually exploited. ‘Cut this hideous story out of her brain!’ she screams at the prospective lobotomist who is now having second thoughts about the girl’s insanity.

Williams eventually built a shrine to Rose at his Key West home. It was modelled on Serafina’s shrine to her dead husband in The Rose Tattoo, and it incorporated pictures both of his sister and of St Jude (patron, as Spoto observes, of hopeless cases). He used his wealth to provide the best possible care for this pathetically vacant creature, and for his ultimately psychotic mother. In time, he even overcame his hatred for his father. ‘Cat on a hot tin roof’ was one of Cornelius’s phrases, and in the play of that name Big Daddy Pollitt (Cornelius to a t) is viewed with a powerful amalgam of fear, anger and affection. Father, mother, sister and paternal grandparents formed the nucleus of the troupe from which all his characters were drawn, and as one reads of his failure in adulthood to reciprocate the devotion of friends and lovers, one senses that nobody else ever really mattered to him.

Spoto’s literary judgments, when he ventures them, are a trifle tentative and conventional, but this doesn’t prevent his book being a fascinating piece of literary and theatrical history. Tom rechristened himself Tennessee at the point when he moved on from writing verse to writing words for actors: Tennessee was the home of his beloved grandparents, whose encouragement helped set him on his true path. Progressing from campus poet to drifter, waiter-at-table and washer-up, via the pleasures of homosexual promiscuity in permissive New Orleans, he hit upon that path when he was spotted by a theatre administrator who happened to be married to Elia Kazan. First she wangled a special cash award for him, then she put him into the hands of a remarkable agent called Audrey Wood who immediately began nudging him towards fame and fortune. At one stage, esteemed but not yet famous, he was engineered a job as a screenwriter at MGM. They wanted him to fashion what he termed a ‘celluloid brassiere’ for Lana Turner, but he insisted on pushing on towards his first major play, provisionally entitled The Gentleman Caller. Having recently completed Gone with the Wind, MGM felt they’d done with Southern women, and thus passed up the chance of the rights to The Glass Menagerie.

The birth of that play was both difficult and astonishing. Boxing Day was the appointed time, Chicago the chosen city, and the key role of Amanda was assigned to Laurette Taylor, a once-great actress fallen on drink and hard times. During the final week everything that could go wrong did, with the star stumbling through rehearsals in an alcoholic stupor and mumbling a summarised version of the dialogue which Williams was still rewriting. All seemed lost by the second matinee and the producers prepared a closing notice, but then came the news of two short but positive reviews. The mayor of Chicago was instantly persuaded to inject a subsidy, and that same evening people realised that something else had happened: Miss Taylor had suddenly woken up, assumed command, and was creating a performance which was soon to become legendary. During the ensuing highly successful New York transfer she frequently vomited offstage, and not from nerves: like so many other figures in Tennessee Williams’s landscape, she was to die of cancer.

To read The Kindness of Strangers is to observe not a simple sequence of events but a constantly overlapping series of gradual emergences: Williams was a compulsive rewriter, and often worked on plays in tandem. One watches the long gestation of Orpheus Descending via an earlier version called Battle of Angels which was painfully aborted with help from the Boston censors. One watches Streetcar emerge from a chrysalis called The Moth in which Williams wanted Tallulah Bankhead to star. Given – of course – that Blanche DuBois is an amalgam of author, mother and sister, and that Kowalski echoes Cornelius, it is illuminating to learn that Williams once worked in a warehouse with a real Stanley Kowalski and that he loved the man’s bold amiability. This, coupled with a key stage-direction, puts a new gloss on the dark and brutal way Brando played the part, and may explain Spoto’s surprising and unexpanded suggestion that Williams did not entirely like Elia Kazan’s superb film.

But back, for a moment, to Orpheus, and over to a hypothesis advanced not by Spoto but by Elaine Dundy in her new biography Elvis and Gladys. She points out that Williams’s reaction to an encounter with Presley was to drop what he was doing and go feverishly back to work on Orpheus. She suggests that the fellow-Mississippian Elvis was the model for the guitar-wielding, snakeskin-jacketed, quintessentially sexual Val, who is torn apart by the forces of corruption. Well, let’s see. Act Two begins with a scene in which Val’s sexually dammed-up employer jealously interrogates him.

Lady: Did you walk around in front of her that way?

Val: What way?

Lady: Slew-foot, slew-foot!

(He regards her closely with good-humoured perplexity)

Did you stand in front of her like that?
That close? In that, that – position?

Val: What position?

Lady: Ev’rything you do is suggestive!

Val: Suggestive of what?

It fits. Elvis was initially bemused by his own magnetism in exactly that way. His musical mastery was the fruit of a long and hard apprenticeship, and it is obvious from his films that he had great natural talent as an actor. If he had not been so jealously shielded from contact with serious artists, if he had fallen into the professional clutches of Kazan and Williams, who knows what might have resulted? This must be one of the saddest might-have-beens of theatrical history.

Always fun to be with, Williams knocked about with a great many celebrities, though only a few of these make significant appearances in Spoto’s story. Carson McCullers, unstable like Rose before her operation, was one he repeatedly helped. An endearing tableau: Tennessee, convinced as usual that he was dying and that the current play would be his last, working away at an early draft of Summer and Smoke; and at the opposite end of the dining-room table, McCullers tinkering manically with The Member of the Wedding. One day he breezed into Christopher Isherwood’s Santa Monica home, and Isherwood was entranced. ‘Tennessee is the most relaxed creature imaginable: he works till he’s tired, eats when he feels like it, sleeps when he can’t stay awake.’ Isherwood went on to describe the park at the top of the cliffs, full of prowling servicemen in the wartime black-out, a sex jungle at night. He felt nervous, but Tennessee was in his element. Neither of the two most memorable characters in this book was ‘anybody’: Frank Merlo, the playwright’s lover and adviser, who died of cancer and/or a broken heart, his long devotion cruelly spurned; and the Reverend Dakin Williams, who transcended his Episcopalian background in his nineties, and had a whale of a time camping about with his flamboyant grandson.

Two-thirds of the way through this book it is as though a light goes out, as though Tennessee’s encroaching depression and paranoia signalled a fatal falling-off in his ability to write. Though this is not true – Small Craft Warnings (1970) is a daringly successful exercise – there is no doubt that some of the later plays didn’t work, and he couldn’t face up to the fact. The general editor of Tennessee Williams on File prefaces his compiler’s work with a related question: can the later plays really have been so incompetent? Well, you won’t find an answer – nor even the whereabouts of an answer – from this little fleabite on the broad back of Williams scholarship. At once self-effacing and pretentious, the File comes as part of a new series of quick – very quick – guides to the work of major dramatists, and to the way both they and their contemporary critics viewed that work. ‘Wide range of opinion … dispassionately representative … necessary context …’ – it sounds fine in theory, but it doesn’t bear inspection. Hardly anyone apart from Williams himself seems to have anything worth saying. While many of the short quotes are windy encomia from bemused admirers, many more are mere journalistic put-downs, of the worst overnight-job variety. Williams’s best short-stories put him in the same league as Lawrence, but you’d never guess so here, any more than you’d guess that Baby Doll was a comic masterpiece. It is downright misleading to be told that The Gentleman Caller was written ‘under six-month contract with MGM’ – as though it was commissioned by that organisation rather than written in spite of it. Memoirs is quoted from without any indication of its unreliability. Synopses are given: ‘A collection of misfits in a bar change emotional partners and dance through the night.’ (Yes, and King Lear chooses his friends unwisely and gets lost in bad weather.) And history is rewritten. The File quotes Williams’s preface to Camino Real: ‘I only know that I have felt a release in this work which I wanted you to feel with me.’ The trouble is, the File changes the ‘with’ to an ‘in’, thus neatly obscuring the generosity of spirit so characteristic of its author. One for the vaults, I’d say.